Friday, April 01, 2005

A remarkable, if maddening, leader

As your blogstress writes this, there is disagreement among the media as to whether or not Pope John Paul II is still alive. Even if rumors of his death are premature, no one appears to expect the pontiff to live to see tomorrow.

For this writer, John Paul II has been a frustrating character--one of such great talents and obvious spirituality, yet such wrong-headed ideas with regard to the full humanity of women and the moral health of non-heterosexuals.

When Karol Wojtyla ascended the papal throne, there was much excitement in the Stan family, some of whose ancestors arrived in the New World from Poland at the turn of the last century. But it wasn't just the common motherland that thrilled us: it was the man himself, who so obviously represented a departure from the tormented, vacillating leadership of Pope Paul (whose immediate successor, John Paul I, lasted all of 33 days in office before dying).

Wojtyla was a poet, an actor and an athlete. When your reporter covered the pope's 1987 U.S. tour for The Nation, she felt the hair on her arms raise in excitement as she chased the popemobile around a muddy field in Florida. His charisma and spirituality was palpable. Surely, such a man of the world held the prospect of true reform in his hands.

But it was not to be. If anything, the stubborn, traditionalist dogma of John Paul II assured the disintegration of his church. Even so, the crucial role he played in the demise of the Soviet Union guarantees his place in history as a great world leader, if not the best at maintaining the relevance of the church he led. And his outreach to those of other religions, especially his delicate dance with Jewish leaders, is truly revolutionary. Alas, it may not be enough to save Mother Church.

As history unfolds, it will reveal Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII, the great reformer, as the one who squandered a great opportunity to save the church at the conclusion of Vatican II--reportedly at the urging of the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. It was Paul who rejected the recommendation of the lay commission convened by John XIII that birth control be deemed acceptable for practicing Catholics. This layperson asserts that had Vatican II concluded with the Latin Mass in tact and birth control removed from the list of mortal sins, the church would be healthy today--even with proscriptions on abortion, homosexuality and women clerics.

Your écrivaine laments her lack of optimism for the future of the church of which she remains a member in questionable standing. In his long tenure, John Paul II was able to craft the College of Cardinals, the body that will elect the next pope, in his own image. Of the 117 cardinals under the age of 80 who will convene for the conclave, John Paul appointed 100. It's hard to imagine how the church avoids anointing another hard-liner as its first 21st-century leader. How sad for the world, which so cries for spiritual nourishment in a confusing, new time.

Perhaps, though, there will be deliverance. Divine intervention could, after all, grant us a pope with the heart of John XXIII and the gifts of John Paul II.


Read more from Addie's papal archive

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